« PreviousContinue »
HISTORY OF LITERATURE IN GREAT BRITAIN.
1. The Four Great Periods of History.-2. The Roman Period in England.—8. The
Dark Ages—The Anglo-Saxon Period in England.-4. The Middle Ages-- The Normans in England.-5. Modern Times in England-Contrast with the Middle Ages.6. Relations between Literature and National History.—7. The Moral Relations of Literature and Literary History.
THE FOUR PERIODS OF ENGLISH HISTORY.
I. THE ROMAN PERIOD:-B. C. 55—A. D. 449.
1. The literature of our native country, like that of every other, is related,
intimately and at many points, to the history of the nation. The great national epochs are thus also the epochs of intellectual cultivation; and, accordingly, our literary annals may be arranged in four successive periods.
The first, or Roman Period, may be held as beginning with the invasion of England by Julius Cæsar in the year 55 before the Advent: and it closes with the year of grace 449, which is usually supposed to have been the date of the earliest Germanic settlements in the island. It thus embraces five centuries.
Next comes our Anglo-Saxon Period, which, after having endured about six centuries, was brought to an end by the invasion of William the Conqueror in the year 1066. It corresponds with that tumultuous stage in European History, which we know by the name of the Dark Ages.
Our third Period, beginning with the Norman Conquest, may be set down as ending with the Protestant Reformation, or with the accession of Henry the Eighth in the year 1509. It has thus a length of about four centuries and a half; and these, the Dark
Ages having already been set apart, are the Middle Ages of England as of Europe.
From the Reformation to the present day there has elapsed a Period of three centuries and a half, which are the Modern Times of all Christendom.
Let us take, at the opening of our studies, a bird's-eye view of the regions thus laid down on our historical map.
The first of our four periods, having bequeathed no literary remains, will afterwards drop out of sight. To the other three, in their order, are referable all the shorter stages into which the history of our literary progress will be subdivided; and the particular features of each of these will be comprehended the more readily, if we remember the general character of the great historical division to which it belongs.
2. A hasty glance over the Roman or Classical Period teaches two facts which we ought to know.
In the first place, the only native inhabitants of England, certainly with few exceptions, and perhaps without any, belonged to the great race of Celts. Another Celtic tribe occupied Ireland, and was spread extensively over Scotland. None of these were the true founders of the English nation : but the state of the English Celts under the Romans affected in no small degree the events which next followed.
Secondly, then, Rome introduced into our island many changes; yet fewer and less extensive than those which she worked elsewhere.
In some continental countries, of which Gaul was an instance, the Romans, forming close relations with the vanquished, diffused almost universally their institutions, habits, and speech. Their position among us was quite unlike this.' It rather resembled that which, in the earliest settlements of the Europeans in India, a few armed garrisons of invaders held amidst the surrounding natives, from whom, whether they were snbmissive or rebellious, the foreign troops stood proudly apart. Nowhere, even when the conquerors were most powerful, did there take place, between them and the Britons, any union extensive enough to alter at all materially the nationality of the people. Nowhere, accordingly, did the Latin language either permanently displace, or greatly modify, the native tongues.
Still, besides the thinly scattered hordes who continued to hunt in the marshy forests, and build their log-villages in the wilderness for rude shelter and defence, there were a few large communities, to whom their millitary masters taught successfully both the useful arts and many of the luxuries of the south. There
cannot but have been a vast difference between the fierce savages who fought under Caractacus, Boadicea, or Galgacus, and those Britons who, in the fourth century, were citizens of the stately Roman towns in the southern half of the island, or cultivated the fertile districts that lay around their walls. The knowledge and tastes thus introduced among the British Celts were not uncommunicated to those vigorous invaders, whose occupation of the island speedily followed the retirement of the imperial armies.
3. The ages which succeeded the fall of the Roman Empire do, in many points, well deserve their name of Dark. But the gloom which covered them was that which goes before the dawn; and bright rays of light were already breaking through.
The great event was that vast series of emigrations which planted tribes of Gothic blood over large tracts of Europe, and established that race as sovereigns in other regions, where the population suffered but little change. The earliest stages of formation were then undergone by all the languages now spoken in European countries. Christianity, which had been made known in some quarters during the Roman Times, was professed almost universally before the Dark Ages reached their close.
Our Anglo-Saxon invaders were Goths of the Germanic or Teutonic stock. Their position in Britain was quite unlike that which had been held by the Romans. Instead of merely stationing garrisons to overawe, they planted colonies, large and many, which poured in an immense stream of population. They continued to emigrate from the continent for more than a hundred years after their first appearance; and by the end of that period they had established settlements covering a very large proportion of the island, as far northward as the shores of the Forth.
Before many generations had passed away, their language, and customs, and national character, were as generally prevalent throughout the provinces which they had seized, as the modern English tongue and its accompaniments have become in the United States. Elsewhere, however, there still survived independent Celtic tribes, occupying Wales and its neighbourhood, in the south of the island, and numerous also in Scotland beyond the Forth and Clyde. Against the Welsh Britons the AngloSaxons waged continual war. Their strength was further wasted, and their social advancement checked by their own separation into several small states, which were not perfectly at peace even after the chiefs of one of them were recognised as kings of Saxon England. At length, when their polity had been steadily
grounded, it was shaken to the foundation by the long struggle which they had to maintain against their Gothic kinsmen from Scandinavia. These fierce pagans, known to us as Danes or Northmen, were able to establish large Norse settlements along the eastern English coast, and, for a time, to occupy the throne of the country.
We do not look with much hope for literary cultivation among the Anglo-Saxons. It is surprising that they should have left so many monuments of intellectual energy as they have. The fragments which are extant possess a singular value, as illustrations of the character of a very singular people: and they offer to us the additional attraction of being written in that which is really our mother-tongue.
During the six hundred years of their independence, the nation made wonderful progress in the arts of life and thought. They learned much from the subdued Britons, not a little from the continent, and yet more from their own practical good sense, guided wisely by several kings and churchmen. The pagans accepted the Christian faith : the piratical sea-kings betook themselves to the tillage of the soil, and to the practice of some of the ruder manufactures : the fierce soldiers constructed, out of the materials of legislation common to the whole Teutonic race, a manly and systematic political constitution.
4. The third of our Periods, here called the Middle Ages, differs strikingly from the Ages described as Dark. The latter were seemingly fruitful in nothing but undecided conflicts: now we reach a state of things which, with receding waves like the flowing tide, still, like it, presents to the eye an unflagging and perceptible progress. The painful convulsions of infant society made way for the growing vigour of healthy though undisciplined youth.
All the relations of life were henceforth modified, more or less, by two influences, predominant in the early part of the period, decaying in the latter. The one was that of Feudalism, the other that of the Church of Rome. Literature was especially nourished by the consolidation of the new Languages, which were successively developed in all European countries, so far that they soon became fully qualified as instruments for communicating the results of intellectual activity.
In the general history of European society, the Middle Ages are commonly held as closed by two events, occurring nearly at the same time: the erection of the great monarchies on the ruins of feudalism; and the shattering of the sovereignty of the Romish Church by the Protestant Reformation. These epochs
likewise come close to the most important incident in the annals of Literature. The art of printing, invented a little earlier, became generally available as a means of enlightenment about the beginning of the sixteenth century.
The Norman Conquest, which we take as the commencement of the Middle Ages for England, introduced the country, by one mighty stride, into the circle of continental Europe. Not only did it establish close relations between our island and its neighbours ; but through the policy which the conquerors adopted, it subjected the nation at once to both of the ruling mediæval impulses. Feudalism, peremptorily introduced, metamorphosed completely the relative position of the people and the nobles ; the recognition of the papal supremacy altered not less thoroughly the standing of the church. Neither of these changes was unproductive of good in the state of society which then prevailed. But both of them were distasteful to our nation ; both of them rapidly became in reality injurious both to freedom and to knowledge; and the opposition of opinions in regard to them produced most of those civil broils, in which our kings, our clergy, our aristocracy, and our people, played parts, and engaged in combinations, so shifting and so perplexing. At length, under the dynasty of the Tudors, the ecclesiastical shackles were cast away; while the feudal bonds, not yet ready for unriveting, began to be gradually slackened.
In this long series of revolutions, not a step was taken without arousing a literary echo. The earliest effects only call for immediate notice. Our Norman invaders were the descendants of an army of Norwegians, which, a hundred and fifty years before, had conquered a province of Northern France, thenceforth called Normandy. They were thus sprung from the same great Gothic race, another branch of which had sent forth the Anglo-Saxons. But they had long ago ląst all vestiges of their pedigree. They had abandoned, almost universally, their own Norse tongue, and adopted that which they found already used in Northern France, one of those dialects which had arisen out of the decaying Latin. This infant language they had nursed and refined, till it was now ready to give expression to fanciful and animated poetry. In other points they had accommodated themselves, with like readiness, to the habits and institutions of their French home; they had changed nothing radically, but developed and improved everything. By their fostering care of feudalism and of letters, as well as by other exertions, it was they that first guided France towards being what she afterwards became, the model and instructress of mediæval Europe.